The Relevance of Refuge and Karma in Daily Life
Riga, Latvia, August 2010
Session Four: Karma
There’s one more thing that I want to add about our discussion concerning whether or not there ever has been a Buddha. That was an important issue in terms of refuge and Buddhas. As we’ve been discussing, in terms of probability, whether we speak in terms of quantum probability or just regular probability, that there is a possibility that there’s been one Buddha or two Buddhas or three Buddhas, etc. But, also, what I didn’t mention is that also there’s a probability that there was never any Buddha. So this is a very interesting problem. You can look at it, you can analyze, from several points of view.
In terms of probability, well, there’s a probability that there could have been one Buddha, there could have been two, there could have been three, there could have been four, five – all the way up to the finite number of sentient beings. So there’s a very large probability, much more, in terms of all these possibilities than the one probability that there were never any Buddhas. I mean to say there’s a larger probability that there was a Buddha than there never was a Buddha.
But there’s another way of analyzing. One of the features of a Buddha is that a Buddha exerts enlightening influence, which is like a magnet that draws others toward liberation and enlightenment. And one of the aspects of Buddha-nature, that we all have, is that our mental continuum can be stimulated; it can be affected by this enlightening influence in order to grow, to go on the spiritual path of self-improvement. So if there was never an enlightening influence, if there was never a Buddha, so if there never was the enlightening influence of a Buddha, so then you could ask the question: how could anybody ever have made spiritual progress? Because obviously there have been people who have worked on the Buddhist path and have made spiritual progress, and we can see that even in ourselves if we try out the teachings.
I mean, obviously that requires a little bit of deeper thought about what an inspiration is, and what is the importance of being inspired or stimulated by someone else’s example – or their teachings or whatever – to try to improve our situation. We have to think quite a bit about that. And if we say, well, they could have gotten enlightening influence from just teachers who weren’t Buddhas – well, where’d they get their enlightening influence from? And if there were a first Buddha, where did that Buddha get inspiration from? So, by this type of way of thinking, we come to the conclusion that there was never a first Buddha. But there’s still the question of was it a Buddha. There’s always a Buddha that exerted this enlightening influence.
So we then look at the teachings of the Buddha. Mind you, there were an infinite number of Buddhas, and all the Buddhas taught something slightly different, but let’s leave that aside. Let’s just look at what Buddha Shakyamuni taught. If we put into practice the teachings, at the level which we can put it into practice, then empirically we know from our own experience that actually it works: it helps to diminish our suffering and problems. And we’re not talking here about the methods that Buddha taught which are shared in common by almost all Indian philosophies and systems, like the methods for achieving concentration, etc. These are common things, not specifically Buddhist. But what is specifically Buddhist are the four noble truths – in general, for both Hinayana and Mahayana – and within the Mahayana context, the teachings on voidness. And we can know empirically, from our own experience, that the more and more we understand voidness, the more and more we apply it in our daily lives, the less and less our problems are. It really works.
And if we look at these steps that Buddha taught, and we find empirically that so many of these steps, as far as we can go, work, then – as we find in the arguments in the texts – – is there any reason for Buddha to have lied about the following steps, the completing steps? Well, the only motivation for achieving enlightenment was compassion. Therefore there’s no reason for Buddha to have tried to fool us. So that’s what we find in the texts. But if you analyze this more – and now I’m analyzing as I’m speaking – I could raise an objection. If you look at the later stages of the path, the more final stages of the path, what it’s saying is that – aside from all the other things that I think are secondary – is that if you could have the understanding of voidness perfectly, nonconceptually, all the time then the ignorance, the unawareness, would never arise again. So that’s how you get liberation and, if it’s strong enough with bodhichitta, you get enlightenment. So you could say – here’s my objection – that, well, Buddha, like us, maybe went a few steps more than we did and saw that, well, if he had the understanding of voidness nonconceptually a great deal of the time – much more than I could possibly have achieved – and he saw that it got better and better and therefore, by inference, he inferred that if you had it all the time you wouldn’t have the source of the problems at all, ever. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he actually achieved it. He could have inferred it. And that would be a valid inferential understanding. So that’s as far as I’ve gotten in my analysis because I can’t answer that question.
So do you have any idea how to answer that question?
Participant: Well, I think that, in general, we can prove just indirectly that there have been Buddhas, but we cannot ever be really sure with – we cannot test it empirically ourselves.
Participant: But Buddha himself said, “I’ve achieved enlightenment.” Otherwise, he would be lying to us.
Alex: Yes. I mean, this is – Helmuts translated what you said, but what you added is what I said before, what we find in the texts, that if Buddha, having said that: “I’ve achieved enlightenment, and the earth is my witness to this,” that Buddha would have lied. And there’s no reason for Buddha to have lied. And that’s the classical argument. And also if we look at all of the activity of the Buddha, then it doesn’t fit in that the Buddha lied about this aspect, and everything else that he did was pretty good.
So I can’t give you any solutions to this analysis, but just indicate some of the ways in which we can analyze this issue. But I think that it’s an important one, in terms of the relevance of refuge in our daily lives. And that’s the point of: Was there actually a Buddha? And is it actually possible to achieve Buddhahood? And if there was never a Buddha, and it’s impossible to achieve it, what am I doing in terms of – am I taking as my source of direction something which is impossible? Is it like striving to become Mickey Mouse? Or what is it? So then does my Buddhist practice really go more in the direction of just trying to improve things as much as possible? And if it does, without thinking that I could ever become fully enlightened – or even liberated, for that matter – then fine. But I think it needs to be a little bit clear, in terms of not fooling ourselves: What actually are we striving for and what do we actually think is possible?
We’re talking about having this direction, this refuge, very secure and stable in our minds, without any doubts. And this is what I’m introducing here, is the type of doubts that could arise. I think many of us probably never even doubt it. You just sort of accept it. But after a while, you start to question this. And what happens is that either you give up and say this is impossible, what I’m striving to do, and nobody ever has achieved it, so who am I fooling to think that I can achieve this? So, give up. Or it could be, well, I’m satisfied with going as far as is possible in this direction. Because there’s a big difference between being convinced… and we can be convinced, logically, that theoretically it is possible to gain liberation and enlightenment. There are enough – difficult, mind you – but there are enough lines of reasoning and methods for actually gaining valid inferential understanding that it is actually theoretically possible. But then the question is, well, practically though is it possible? And that’s a very interesting dialectic between what’s theoretically possible and what is actually possible.
So the only way that we can be convinced that practically it is possible is to do it ourselves. Because it says that only a Buddha can recognize another Buddha. So how do we even know that anybody’s actually a Buddha? Just because they say they’re a Buddha? A lot of crazy people say they’re Buddha. So that’s interesting. We can only know by inference that somebody else is a Buddha because, unless we’re a Buddha, we can’t really know directly. So we could say, well, theoretically I can infer that there must be a Buddha; but in order to really be convinced, I have to become a Buddha, and so I will work in that direction. This might be the solution.
Now today I’d like to speak about the relevance of karma in our daily lives. And for this, of course, we need to understand what is meant by karma. And what it’s referring to is the mental urges that we have that draw us into various types of actions, whether it is physical actions, verbal actions (like saying something), or indicating something with gestures, and thinking something. Another explanation of it is in terms of physical and verbal actions, that the karma is actually the impulse of energy – both coarse and subtle – that’s involved with carrying out the actions. But in neither of these two theories or explanations is the karma the actual action itself.
And having acted on the basis of this urge or impulse of energy, then this leaves a certain type of aftermath afterwards or impression – not a physical impression, but a more abstract impression – on our mental continuum. And this is in the form of potentials – either a positive or negative potential – and tendencies, positive or negative. There’s a slight difference between these two, but there’s no need for us to get into the technical detail now. And when certain conditions are present, then one aspect of these potentials and tendencies is the ability to give rise to an effect – when the conditions are present. And so when the conditions are present, it gives rise to a ripening, an effect, a result.
And there are many different types of results that come about from these karmic tendencies and potentials. The most general one is a feeling of happiness or unhappiness, some sort of level of that, that accompanies any moment of our experience. If it’s unhappiness, it’s the result of destructive karma, destructive behavior. And if it’s happiness, it’s the result of constructive behavior.
And there’s also a feeling to repeat the action. It’s not the actual urge, the karmic urge. Karma doesn’t ripen from karma directly. So it’s the feeling. You know, I feel like yelling at you – or hugging you. And based on that feeling, then there will be an urge actually to do it that draws us into the action. So there’s that distinction. Feeling like doing something is like wanting to do it. But I think “feeling” is, at least in English, a little bit more descriptive. So we feel like repeating something similar to what we did before – yelling, or acting in one way or another – and we also feel like getting into a situation in which something similar will happen back to us. Mind you, it is not the result of our karma, or karmic tendencies, that the other person acts back to us in a similar way to the way that we acted, because that’s ripening from their karmic tendencies. The only thing that ripens is our feeling to get into that, to meet with this person.
And another thing that ripens is the actual life form type of body, the type of mental activity that we can have, the limitations of the mental activity – if you have a dog brain or a human brain. There are certain limitations. So this type of life form that we take is also going to be something that ripens from these tendencies, because it has to do with what actually brings us the mental continuum to connect with, in the case of a mammal, the sperm and egg of a parent, because you feel like joining with that.
Now, of course, when we look at our experiences in daily life, we could say that whatever experiencing – happy, unhappy – whatever we do, etc., is the ripening of our karmic potentials and tendencies. But although there are certain types of karmic behavior that will bring about a ripening of their potentials and tendencies in this lifetime, particularly the type of actions that are very, very strongly motivated, either positively or negatively, and especially if they are directed at those who have been extremely kind to us, like our teachers or parents. But the vast majority of what ripens is ripening – and what we experience as this ripening – is the result of karmic potentials and tendencies from previous lifetimes.
So this is of course very difficult because for many of us – perhaps most of us, as Westerners – we are certainly not convinced of past and future lifetimes. And I think that’s a whole different issue (a separate issue, I should say) that I don’t really want to discuss here – we don’t have the time – in terms of past and future lives and how we become convinced of them. But I think that, even without believing in past lives and future lives, that the whole discussion of karma can have very strong relevance in our life – how we deal with what happens to us.
First of all, when we have developed – well, it’s usually called, in Western circles, “mindfulness” although that’s not quite using the technical term in Buddhism of “mindfulness” in the precise way, according to its definition – but when we have become attentive of what’s going on in our mental and emotional life, mindfulness then will be the mental factor which is like a glue, mental glue, that holds us to that attentiveness. And when we become very attentive, then we will notice when I feel like doing something, when I feel like saying something – when that arises – and we will notice there is certainly a space between when I feel like doing it and when actually there’s that urge that actually gets me into doing it.
Very often there are people who – at least we say in English, colloquially – that just say the first thing that comes to their heads without thinking, we would say in English. They just have no internal censor in terms of what they say and what they do. They just, impulsively, whatever comes up, they do or say. But when we notice that there is a space in between when the feeling arises and when we act on the basis of that feeling, then that allows us to use what’s called discriminating awareness to decide do I want to act this out or not. Would it be helpful or would it just cause a lot of problems? And then, if it’s going to cause a lot of problems – it’s destructive – you don’t act it out. We don’t have to tell somebody, “What an ugly dress you’re wearing.” Not really helpful.
So the point is that we understand that these feelings of acting in a certain way, or speaking in a certain way, have come from habits. Remember we were talking about habits from this lifetime or from previous lifetimes? Actually that’s irrelevant. The point is that I’m just acting impulsively based on previous patterns, previous habits, and there’s no reason why I have to be a slave to these impulses. I’m a human being. I’m not an animal that just acts without any control, based on its instincts. As a human being I have intelligence. Intelligence means the ability to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful. And so, whether they’re past lifetimes or not, I see that this is really stupid to act on the basis of these habits, and so I don’t want to do that because it just gets me into more and more problems, and so I’m going to try to overcome it.
And I think that, in certain ways, we need to look at these repeating patterns like an addiction. We can be addicted, of course, to alcohol or cigarettes or drugs. But we can also be addicted to gambling; we could be addicted to sex; we could be addicted to yelling at people. And there are many methods, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, to overcome addictions. And these are things that we need to apply; otherwise, we’re out of control and it just produces more and more problems.
Now, of course, the thing that we have to add here is that in some programs one bases one’s true identity on “I’m an addict,” and you never really let go of it. And so, underlying that, is the assumption that you can never really eliminate it completely. You can never achieve a true stopping of it. Now, from a Buddhist point of view, you can achieve a true stopping of it so that it never arises again, so you don’t have to worry about it again. That’s what a Buddha has achieved in full. So, again, our discussion of “is there a Buddha?” becomes relevant here. Can we really get out of our addictions?
But this is where renunciation comes in. Renunciation is “I’m determined to give it up.” And the emotional feeling that is involved with it is just total disgust with it and boredom: “I’m just bored of this addiction. I’m bored of always losing my temper and yelling. And so, when I feel like yelling, I’m going to try to stop it. I’m going to try to at least, at the first step, not act it out.”
Now another thing that we need to pay attention to, with this trying to apply the teachings on karma in our daily lives, has to do with a misunderstanding that can come in terms of: whatever I experience is the ripening of my karma. And that is a defeatist attitude, that I deserve this: I was a bad boy or girl in the past, and now I deserve this, what’s happening to me. Now, of course, we find teachings which say that if we didn’t put up the target, nobody would shoot at us, shoot an arrow at us. That’s from Shantideva. And so, if I hadn’t acted destructively in the past, I wouldn’t experience people getting angry with me now and treating me badly, etc. But the point here – Shantideva’s point – is not to blame the other person, but to put the blame on ourselves. But that could go to the extreme of “I’m such a bad person and I deserve this. So I’ll just shut up, and not complain, and accept the punishment,” as it were. And I don’t think that’s the most healthy way of dealing with this teaching, nor that it is the intended way of putting it into practice.
Instead, we look at another aspect of the karma teachings, which is that if I’m experiencing something now, happening to me, then I can infer from the teachings of karma what the cause was in my behavior. Because there’s plenty of teachings that enumerate: if we are always experiencing that our relations don’t last, we can’t stay with our loved ones, and people are always breaking up with us, and so on – that that’s the result of divisive language, saying nasty things to people about their friends. So, of course, if I’m experiencing this, this is the ripening of my karma. Because we’re getting into situations in which others are doing something similar to us – that we or others specifically, or just life in general, causes separations. But a further thing that will ripen from it is a tendency to repeat that type of behavior.
And so, if we really examine ourselves, we might find (and we probably will find) the teachings of karma are correct – that we have a tendency to criticize, to say nasty things about other people to those who like these other people, or are friendly with them, or who are studying with them, or whatever. We tend to be overly critical. We never say good things about anybody; we only say bad things about them. It’s very common, isn’t it? We’re really anxious to point out their shortcomings, and to tell everybody about that, and complain about it. But how often do we really focus on the good qualities of others, and praise them to other people? For most of us that’s quite rare.
So I think this is one of the most important points that we can learn from these teachings on karma and that we can apply in our daily lives. We find the patterns that we have that are corresponding to the type of things that we are experiencing, and rather than saying, “I was such a bad boy or bad girl in a past lifetime, that I did this, and now I’m experiencing my relations are always breaking up,” but I can focus now on becoming more and more aware that I have this pattern of being too critical – always saying bad things about others – and work on that. When I feel like saying something terrible about somebody else, to think more about their good qualities.
So there are many, many examples of different types of karmic syndromes that we can identify. We’re poor, and what we find is that we’re always taking advantage and using things of other people, exploiting them, never paying for anybody else, always expecting that they’re going to pay for us, etc. So we can notice these correlations in what we experience happening to us and our feelings and tendencies to act in a certain way. I’m referring specifically to using things of other people without asking: use their telephone to make a long distance call; just go and take something from their refrigerator without asking; this type of thing.
Another aspect that has to do with overcoming this feeling of being defeatist, that I deserve it, is to realize that results don’t come from just one cause. Buddha said that a bucket is not filled by the first drop or the last drop; it’s filled by the collection of all the drops. And so whatever we experience is not just the result of one nasty thing – a suffering type of experience – one nasty thing that we did in the past, or even an accumulation of several nasty things that we did in the past. But rather, there’s almost a countless amount of causes and conditions that have had to come together in order for us to experience something.
So we’re talking not just about… Let’s say we get hit by a car. So it’s not just that I might have injured somebody else – maybe not with a car, but with something else – not just that, but how about all the karmic forces with the other person who actually hit us. Then there’s the weather. There’s: why did I go out at that time? There are the people who built the road. There are a tremendous amount of causes and conditions which had to come together – the traffic at that time, etc. – that had to come together for me to actually experience being hit by the car.
So if we can broaden our view of cause and effect – in terms of so many causes, so many conditions have to come together for some result to come about – then we start to deconstruct the solidity of “Me, I’m the guilty one. I deserve this. It’s all my fault.” Now of course we’re responsible. There’s a big difference between being responsible in terms of our behavior and taking responsibility for our behavior – a big difference between that and saying, “Everything is my fault. Look what happens.”
But we need to deconstruct what’s called the three spheres involved, or the three circles involved: “me who’s experiencing this,” and “what I experience,” and the other is the actual “what I did in the past,” etc. There’s many ways of formulating these three circles involved. When we’re grasping onto a solid “me” that was so bad in the past, and now I deserve what is happening to me then, in a sense, we become the victim, or we become the criminal that’s being punished. We hang onto that, and this is a very unhappy state of mind, isn’t it? And we make a big deal out of what we’re experiencing now, “Oh this is so terrible.” And we make a big deal out of what we did in the past, “Oh it’s so terrible what I did.” And now the whole thing gets involved with guilt, etc., feeling sorry for ourselves. All of this just makes our experience of daily life worse and worse.
And so it’s very important to – as we saw with refuge – to bring in some understanding of voidness here. Without that, things become a little bit too solidified, and it’s very easy to go to certain extremes that are just going to cause more problems, more suffering. And, as we said in terms of going in a safe direction in our life – refuge – you just do it. Similarly, in terms of acting with consideration of the cause and effect of karma then, likewise, you just do it – in terms of being constructive and refraining from acting in a destructive way.
So, of course, it says the causal factors for refraining from a type of destructive behavior is thinking about the disadvantages of acting it out; and because we don’t want to experience those suffering results, we refrain from acting out the urge. But, a great deal of the time, we don’t actually think very actively along those lines. It again becomes an experience of “it just feels right” to not yell at somebody. This becomes very interesting, actually, because there are certain types of negative behavior that – “it just doesn’t feel right to cheat,” or “it just doesn’t feel right to go around and scratch cars,” or stuff like that. So fine, that’s okay. We perhaps have not really actively thought about the negative consequences of that.
But what about killing mosquitoes? Well, I don’t know about you, but I certainly have experienced that it feels right to smack the mosquito, or to go around like I’m on a safari in Africa, hunting the mosquito in my room that is keeping me awake at night and killing it. That feels right. And even if we realize how ridiculous we’re acting by going on a safari against this mosquito – and thinking of absurd examples is actually quite helpful in this case – nevertheless, we still go on the safari, don’t we? So, for that, it is absolutely necessary to think about the disadvantages that would come from killing the mosquito and not being tolerant. And that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that we have to feed the mosquito, but to try to use a peaceful method of putting a jar over it when it lands on the wall, putting a piece of paper underneath the jar, and removing it from our room.
Participant: That’s a very good and practical method.
Alex: Right. It’s a practical method, but you have to be careful that you’re not still going on the safari, because one still could have the safari mentality with the jar or the glass and the piece of paper.
Actually it’s a very interesting experience. Are we doing this just because I don’t want to experience the itch, or are we thinking in terms of the mosquito? Obviously we’re depriving the mosquito of food. Of course, we could practice generosity and put it in somebody else’s room! But if we are continually killing mosquitoes or killing flies, or whatever it might be, you have to think about what is the habit that it’s building up. And the habit that it’s building up – or tendency – is that anything that annoys us, our first response is to kill it. To use a violent means to get rid of it, rather than trying to use a peaceful means. So if we’re going to hunt the mosquito with a jar and a piece of paper, at least don’t do it with hatred for the mosquito: “Unacceptable life form. I have to get rid of it. It’s invaded my space.”
Then, of course, there are more advanced things – that this mosquito has been my mother in past lifetimes, etc. – but for most of us that’s quite difficult to be sincere about. So my point being that for certain things it seems right, it just feels right, to not act destructively; but for other things we really do have to reaffirm the motivation. Okay.
Now another point that I wanted to mention is in terms of the factors that actually will activate our karmic tendencies and potentials to ripen. If we look at the teachings on the twelve links of dependent arising, it speaks about the factors which will activate the karmic potentials at the time of death, for – the literal term is “throwing” our mental continuum – into a future rebirth. And these are the links of craving… actually, the word that is translated as “craving” here, the Sanskrit word (and the Tibetan as well, but the Sanskrit is much more clear) is the word “thirst.”
And the other factor is usually translated by most people as “grasping,” but I think that is not the clearest translation because there are other terms that are translated as “grasping” and it’s not the same as these other terms. Grasping for true existence – it’s not the same term. It is the word that literally means “to obtain something, to get something.” So I call that an “obtainer” emotion or attitude. It’s an emotion or an attitude that, if we develop it, will obtain for us, or get for us, future rebirth. And this refers to a list of disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes that are included here. And it could be one or another or more of these. And the most significant one is in fact involved with identifying something within our aggregates, something that we’re experiencing and identifying it as “me” – “me” as the one that’s experiencing it. And although in the twelve links these are enumerated in terms of what will activate throwing karma for a future rebirth, I think that it is indicative of what will activate our karmic potentials in each moment, and there are some explanations like that.
This, I think, is quite relevant to how the teachings on karma apply in our daily lives. First of all, what’s craving? What is this thirst? It is referring to the feelings of some level of happiness or unhappiness. It’s an attitude or emotional state, in reference to happiness or unhappiness, that we’re experiencing each moment as something that ripens from our karmic tendencies and potentials. Remember, one of the main things that ripen from these tendencies and potentials is some level of happiness that accompanies each moment of our experience. And so what is the thirst here? What is the clinging? It is making a big deal out of the level of happiness or unhappiness that we are experiencing. And, focusing on the happiness, this is something… there’s a thirst for this to continue, to not end. And if it’s unhappiness or suffering, for this to end, to not continue. And if it’s a neutral feeling – let’s say like when we’re asleep – also for that to continue. So, obviously, there can be different grades of this thirst that we have, this clinging.
And then the main obtainer attitude is grasping for a solid “me” in terms of this, in terms of what’s happening in our aggregates. So I’ve got to have this happiness continue. I’ve got to get rid of it. So the thirst or the clinging is focused on the feeling itself, and the obtainer attitude is focused on the “me” as the one who’s experiencing it. So, even if we don’t have a deep understanding of the voidness of feelings and the voidness of “me,” we can still apply here, in daily life, as we’re experiencing – as we do, every moment – some feeling of happy or some feeling of unhappy. We can still apply, for instance, the teachings on the so-called eight worldly dharmas, for example.
Remember, this word “worldly” actually means – Jigten (’jig rten). Ten (rten) is a basis, and jig (’jig) is something that falls apart. And so these are various attitudes that we have that do not have a stable basis. And so here it is the attitude of feeling overjoyed and so on when happy, and really depressed when we’re unhappy. So here, what is it that has an unstable basis? It’s the happiness and unhappiness. And then we overreact to it – overjoyed or completely depressed. And then, like a thirsty person, “I’ve got to have this happiness and not ever lose it,” like having water; and “I’ve got to get rid of this unhappiness,” like the suffering of being thirsty.
So, to overcome this sort of childish type of feeling – if we use the type of terminology that Shantideva does – then we need to develop equanimity. Equanimity here, to put it in simple language, means that the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. So sometimes I’m going to feel happy and sometimes I’m going to feel unhappy. There’s no way of predicting when I’m going to feel happy or unhappy. My mood could change instantly, for no apparent reason. And the level of that happiness or unhappiness, it’s not necessarily dramatic by any means: could be very low level. And the key word here is “nothing special.”
But actually that’s a very profound point. Nothing special. There’s nothing surprising, nothing extraordinary. What do you expect? Of course things are going to go up and down, so don’t make a big deal out of it. So, whatever we experience in life, sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re unhappy. Basically – sure, we realize that the unhappiness comes from acting destructively and happiness comes from acting constructively, etc., but don’t cling to it. And don’t cling to “Me, me, me,” like “I’m so happy, and I want to be happy” and “Oh, I’m so miserable and I want to get out of it.”
Now obviously, conventionally, we want to be happy and we don’t want to be unhappy. And conventionally, we are aiming for liberation and enlightenment in which we’re free from unhappiness, from suffering. But don’t make a big deal out of it, is the point. So this is a, I think, a very important point in terms of the relevance of these karmic teaching in our daily life – that it indicates to us what will bring us more peace of mind. And what will bring us more peace of mind is to have equanimity in terms of our changing moods, as we go through each day, because of course, naturally, sometimes we’re going to feel happier and sometimes unhappier. That’s only part of samsara, what to expect. And so just continue with whatever type of Dharma practice we’re doing. And if I’m not feeling terribly happy at the moment, so what?
Now this doesn’t mean that we should stop being happy and stop being unhappy in a conventional sense, just to become somebody with no feelings whatsoever. It’s certainly not that. It’s okay to be happy and it’s okay to be unhappy. Something nice happens, we feel happy. Something not very nice happens – we went to the restaurant and we wanted to order our favorite dish, and they don’t have it anymore; they’re out of it – well, not so happy. But don’t make a big deal out of it. It’s okay to feel happy or unhappy. Maybe that’s a silly example, but a better example is a loved one dies. Well, it is natural that we’re going to feel sad and unhappy. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, it’s very healthy to mourn. Don’t cling to it and don’t identify with it. “Oh I” – the big “me” – “am so miserable.” Or “I’m so happy.” You’re with somebody: “Aren’t we happy! Aren’t we having a great time!” I mean, this is – it just solidifies the whole thing, destroys it, in many ways.
So we just experience the up and downs of life – happy, unhappy – no big deal, nothing special. And then, the other attitude that we express, if I’m unhappy and things are going badly, look at what might have been a karmic cause of that, see am I repeating something that is similar to that, and work on that.
Now one last thing that I want to mention is in terms of motivation, in terms of the three scopes that we have in lam-rim, the graded stages. We have… in general, teachings in karma are presented with the initial scope motivation. And so I want to refrain from acting destructively because I fear the consequences that I will experience. I don’t know what other people will experience from my actions; I can’t guarantee that. But, from my side, I really do not want to have this suffering that would result from it, the unhappiness and so on. And so I fear that, I dread that – in a healthy way: we’re not talking about punishment in hell – so, particularly or specifically, I want to avoid suffering in future lives. This is the initial scope motivation.
And in the intermediate level, the intermediate scope, we would want to avoid all types of karmic behavior because I want to gain liberation. And if I don’t, it will just continue with this up and down, up and down, and how horrible that is.
And the advanced level is that I want to refrain from acting destructively – refrain from all types of karmic behavior, as well – because, if I don’t, it really hampers my ability to help others. How can I help others if I am constantly going through these ups and downs? I mean, how can I help them fully if I’m constantly going through these ups and downs, and some rather unpleasant things happen to me, etc.? So our main thought is: this negatively affects my ability to help others. We’re not actually thinking, in this humanitarian way, that it hurts others. We’re thinking of my ability to help them.
There’s a big difference here between the attitude toward ethical behavior which is that as long as I don’t hurt anybody by what I do, it’s okay; I want to avoid hurting others, causing harm to others – that’s one attitude which is characteristic, I think, of Western humanitarianism – and the Buddhist attitude. It’s not saying that there’s anything wrong with that. The only thing is that you can’t guarantee what the effect is of our behavior on others. We could steal something from them, and they’re very happy that we stole it, because it was in a horrible condition and they can collect the insurance. So, of course, we develop love and compassion in Buddhism. So, of course, we don’t want to harm others. But here the main emphasis is on: I don’t want to do anything that limits my ability to help others. And that is, I think, a little bit deeper, a little bit more – when I say the word “profound,” I don’t know if that’s really fair to say, but this is the main emphasis here in the discussion of karma in Buddhism. Because it fits in, all together, with this whole spiritual path of working toward enlightenment, that we’re trying to be able to help others as fully as is possible.
So, again, in terms of our daily behavior, the relevance is, I think, more strongly – if we want to do this in a Mahayana way – that if I act destructively, and so on, I’m always bragging about myself, doing these sort of things, nobody is going to trust me and how can I really help anybody? If I’m always cheating others, how can I really help anybody? And so on. Or, more specifically, if I am experiencing the results, the ripening, what’s ripening from karma, which is that – to use our example – nobody stays with me, relations break, and so on, how can I actually really help others? Say if I’m a teacher, or so on, that my students never will stay with me; they will always leave. So that motivates you much more strongly. Now I’m going to stop criticizing others, and so on, and speak about the good qualities of others.
The last point that I want to mention is in Vasubandhu’s text on Abhidharmakosha (the Treasure-House of Special Topics of Knowledge). He was a great Indian master. He mentions that there are two types of mental factors that are always present with any constructive action. And although Asanga, in his text, defines these mental factors in one way, we need to understand these factors in the way that Vasubandhu himself defines them. And the first of these factors is to have respect for good qualities and those who have them. And the second is refrain from being really – “brazenly” is the word – destructive. “Brazenly” means you just don’t care. Not going to exercise any self-control. I just don’t care. And so you don’t refrain at all from doing some destructive behavior. I just do whatever I feel like doing.
So here, if it’s constructive behavior, I refrain from that. If it’s destructive behavior, I’ve no respect for anything positive or people who are positive, and I don’t exercise any self-control. And if it’s constructive, I do have respect for positive things and those who are positive, and I do exercise self-control. I just don’t act brazenly destructive. And this reminds us, perhaps, of “it just feels right.”
So this indicates in our daily life what we need to try to emphasize, remind ourselves of, reaffirm – that I do have great respect for good qualities, like patience, and kindness, and so on. And I do have great respect for those who are like that. It’s very inspiring for me. And I do want to exercise some self-control, and not just be – not care what I do, and just act completely destructively and horribly.
Okay. So I think this covers pretty much what I had thought to mention about karma and the relevance of it in our daily life – how we can make it relevant, these teachings. So let’s take a moment to digest that and then perhaps you might have a question or two.
Okay. So, in short, in terms of acting constructively, we don’t do that on the basis of: I want to be good. I want to be a good boy or a good girl. I don’t want to be bad. That’s not the basis. But rather, we act constructively on the basis of this respect for good qualities and those who have them, and it feels right to refrain from just acting openly destructive without any self-control – just do it.
Do you have any questions?
Alex: Right. He says that he agrees with the teaching on equanimity, not to make anything special out of things going well or things going badly, but how does this fit into the initial scope in which we want to avoid things going badly?
I think we need to understand the whole process of working with these graded stages, these three levels of motivation. The first time, in this lifetime, that we train with these three stages then, if we do it in the proper manner, then we work with the initial scope, and then intermediate scope, and then advanced scope. But then we go back and we go through it again. But now we apply the various things that we have learned on the intermediate and advanced scope to the initial scope. Put it all together, because actually we tend to rush through these stages when we study them.
And if we examine ourselves seriously and honestly, how serious are we in terms of wanting to avoid worse rebirths and actually doing something to improve our future rebirths? Can you really say sincerely that I have this initial level motivation? Or intermediate – that I really, really want to overcome biology; I want to not take rebirth anymore. It’s not that I just would like to continue having a precious human rebirth so I can be with my teachers and my friends and all of that again. How sincere are we? These are very, very difficult to actually develop sincerely, these motivations.
So what we need to really do is to go over and over again these graded stages. And when we have digested, to a certain extent, the teachings… maybe not the motivation, but at least the teachings, in terms of voidness and so on. Because who are we kidding? I want to liberate all beings, the countless number of beings in the universe? I mean, how serious are we about that? But, in any case, the more we digest the advanced teachings, then if we’re really, really sincere about this whole spiritual process, we go back and now very seriously look at the initial scope, and very seriously see can I really develop this. And certainly not try to do the more advanced stages unless that initial level is really firm, sincere.
And for it to be really sincere, that means that I really believe in future lives. And I really, really want to avoid things getting worse and not continuing to have a precious human rebirth. And I’m taking very active steps to ensure that I will be able to continue having this precious human rebirth, so that I can continue on the path. And actually doing something active about that. Then you really have that initial scope of motivation.
And I think it becomes a little bit easier to develop this sincerely if you bring in, let’s say, the teachings on voidness back to these teachings on karma. And so there’s no big deal about happiness or unhappiness. Nothing special. They don’t exist as something solid, etc., truly established from their own side. But conventionally, conventionally they do [exist]. There is happy and unhappy. And conventionally I want to get out of suffering in order to be able to benefit others more. And so, in this way, although there’s nothing special about happy or unhappy, nevertheless, we work to avoid unhappy first, and then the whole karmic package second.
So we understand the two truths about happiness and unhappiness – deepest truth (or voidness) and the conventional truth of them – which is that this unhappiness, these negative things, these obstacles happening to us – the negative ones are going to hamper us more, in terms of helping others, so we have to really focus on getting rid of them first. And then even our ordinary samsaric ups are also going to hamper us. So we have to get rid of all the karmic potentials, both positive and negative. So we reaffirm the conventional truth of all of this.
So I think we can end here with the dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (35%)